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As costly collectibles, Olympic torches are on fire

Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images

Young athletes carry the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games last month. Similar torches are selling for more than $4,000 on eBay.

For Olympic fans with long memories, bygone Games become as beloved as old flames: Berlin in 1936, Mexico City in 1968, Barcelona in 1992. 

Among sports memorabilia buffs, the torches that once carried real Olympic flames – from Olympia, Greece, all the way to the host city’s Olympic caldron – quickly become hot commodities.

Some of the striking, gold-colored torches used to carry the flame to the London Games already have hit the secondary market on auction sites like eBay, with several torches drawing multiple bids at prices topping 3,000 pounds ($4,650).

One Australian seller is trying to cash in by offering a London torch for more than $41,000, claiming it was “used on one of the very last legs of the tour.” The seller declined to comment when contacted by NBC News.


 

Even at under $5,000, the brand-new London torches already are approaching or surpassing the value of far older and presumably rarer torches like one used to haul Olympic fire to Mexico City in '68, which sold for $4,176 in April at a Christie's auction in London. At the same auction a 1936 Berlin torch sold for $9,944, while a Barcelona torch went for $5,569.

The frenzy for some of the London Olympic torches offered has drawn scoffs from expert collectors, especially because 8,000 torches were stamped out for this year's Games, an unusually high number.

“I’ve already seen a bunch of the London Olympic torches on eBay, and some of the prices are absolutely bonzo,” Olympics memorabilia collector Craig R. Perlow told Collectors Weekly. “They are selling for $7,000 to $9,000. There are torches 30 to 40 years old that don’t go for that much money.”

Courtesy Christie's

This torch from the '48 London games goes on auction next month.

How inflated is the current torch market? Simply compare the eBay prices with the assessed value of a classic, aluminum-topped torch from the 1948 London Games, the first of the postwar era. On Sept. 3 in London, Christie’s will auction off that torch and expects to draw somewhere between $3,136 and $4,704.

“A variety of factors contribute to the value,” Christie’s spokesperson Leonie Pitts said via email from London. “They include rarity, importance, provenance, and the specialist knowledge of the market and current demand whilst also taking into account recent prices achieved for similar items.”

But she adds: “There is no exact science.”

The ’48 torch, for example, is thought to be one of just 1,600 manufactured.

“There was the option for torchbearers to purchase their torch after running with it," Pitts said. "It was only the second time the torch relay had been run. The design brief for the torch required for it to be light, simple and able to burn for over 15 minutes at a time."

According to Christie’s, it is impossible to ascertain how many individual torches from past Games still exist, and that can muddy the value estimates. How can you calculate demand if you don’t know the supply?

“(In) bringing the flame from Olympia to the host city for each Games, each relay has been different,” Pitts said. “There are varying accounts of exactly how many torches were made for each Games.”

If an owner has documentation to show that a certain torch was carried inside an Olympic stadium – or even used to ignite the caldron – those factors could bump the “saleability/desirability of an item,” Pitts said.

It can be hard to document exactly where a torch was carried, except in a few years such as the 1968 games in Mexico, which had three different designs that changed during the route.

Still, some collectible dealers are fully aware that big buzz now can mean bigger profits before the electric moment dies down - even if the items being peddled are hardly rare or vintage. 

“That’s probably one of the best collectibles you’re going to get unless you can get your hands on an actual medal,” said Michael Gallucci, vice president of operations at SportsMemorabilia.com in Miami. His company has no torches available currently.

Click to see images as the Olympic torch takes a 70-day, 8,000-mile trip to London for the 2012 summer games.

“Collectors want to feel engaged with an event or athlete. That torch is definitely a symbol of the Olympics, and there aren’t many other (Olympic) items I can think of that you can actually take home.”

Until this year, a torch from the 1952 Helsinki Games held the record price paid for any piece of Olympic memorabilia – it sold in Paris in April 2011 for 290,000 euros or about $350,000.

But in April, Bréal’s Silver Cup – the marathon winner’s trophy from the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896 – grabbed a final bid of $861,129 at Christie's.

Too rich for your patriotic-Olympic blood?

Just head back to eBay. For $700, you can own a torch made for the 2004 Athens Games.

But be sure to read the fine print: This was a reserve torch – and so, “never used.” 

The Olympic torch is set to makes its grand entrance at tonight's opening ceremony celebration after a 70-day journey and racking up about 8,000 miles throughout its tour. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

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